When you drive through the small town of St. Augustine, Florida, your only thought is likely to be how nice of a vacation spot you’re in. Its architecture is gorgeous. The setting is idyllic. The city’s atmosphere is laid back. It is a city that is proud of its storied history, the first European settlement of the New World, one of the most contested cities in America before the nation was unified. What you may not know, however, is that St. Augustine has also been a focal point in America’s struggle for civil rights, and that it recently took a symbolic step in progressing gay rights in Florida. The small town’s struggles are a microcosm of racial and sexual discrimination in America.
When Ponce de Leon sailed from Spain in the early 1500s, his supposed quest for a literal fountain of youth (it’s likely that de Leon wasn’t looking for the fountain of youth; most historians now state he was in it for the money) led him to a land he called La Florida, or “flowery.” Though unproven, many hold that Ponce de Leon’s feet first trod upon Saint Augustine when he landed. St. Augustine was nonetheless claimed by the Spaniards, then the British, then the Spaniards again before being folded into the United States. In the late 1800s, St. Augustine was discovered and then established as a vacation town, where rich tycoons financed the opulent architecture that now characterizes the city.
In the 1960s, efforts to desegregate elementary schools exploded in contentious, often violent protest. Martin Luther King, Jr. made St. Augustine a focal point of the desegregationist movement. It is said by some that, because of this tumultuous time in the city’s history, the nation as a whole finally understood the villainy of the Klu Klux Klan, an organization instrumental in the violence of the time, and the need for civil rights. It was the events of St. Augustine that tipped the national consciousness toward true racial progress.
Over the years, St. Augustine’s reputation has gone back into the shadows, the town once again enjoying annual vacationers from all over the U.S. However, the city recently, quietly tacked on a footnote to its storied history. St. Augustine recently made it illegal to discriminate against individuals on the basis of sexual orientation when deciding if an individual can rent or own a home.
Currently, sexual orientation in terms of housing is not prohibited on a federal level. However, the states of California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin prohibit such discrimination, as well as many cities throughout the U.S.
It is clear that not all areas of the United States are as progressive in the arena of civil rights as the small town of St. Augustine, Florida. The city’s struggles, however, may mirror struggles of your own. If you feel you’ve been discriminated against in any manner, please call the Law Offices of Valli, Kane & Vagnini for a free consultation.